ARLINGTON ROAD: A THRILLER WITH A THOUGHT
BY NATALIE ACREY
While typical thrillers such as The Astronaut’s Wife and Entrapment are busy causing adolescent girls to fall out of their oversized chairs and old men to have ill-timed heart palpitations, the anything-but-typical psychological roller coaster Arlington Road focuses on something completely foreign to this film genre: making viewers think. While it’s still an armrest-grabbing, popcorn-dropping thriller (I know I was clutching my neighbor’s sweaty palm for solace by the end), the film also has—get ready for this—a point. This cinematographic masterpiece with brilliant acting and intriguing, complex themes ponders the role of terrorism in our everyday lives and urges us to look more deeply at the world—or even just at the neighborhood—we live in.
The opening scene is a masterfully edited sequence of blurry and clear shots filmed from every angle of 10-year-old Brady Lang (Mason Gamble, the all-American trickster from Dennis the Menace) dripping blood as he stumbles down a quiet, suburban street. Editor Conrad Buff’s choppy cuts mirror Brady’s confusion—and ours—in a powerful start to a well-paced thriller. When Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) enters, the shots become shaky and dart rapidly from face to face, quickening the pace of the frantic situation as Michael rushes the screaming Brady to the hospital. Once Brady’s parents Oliver (Tim Robbins) and Cheryl Lang (Joan Cusack) arrive, Michael learns that the boy, whose name he didn’t even know, has been his neighbor for almost six months.
Michael, his son Grant (Spencer Treat Clark), and live-in girlfriend/graduate student Brooke (Hope Davis) are thus catapulted into a friendship with the Langs. What appears to be the perfect family friendship (after all, they each have 10-year-old boys they can pawn off on each other whenever they need privacy) begins to deteriorate when clues such as misdirected mail and a hidden blueprint lead Michael to suspect his neighbors of terrorism. Now I know what you’re thinking: misdirected mail, terrorism—not the likeliest of connections. But ever since the death of his FBI agent wife in a violent standoff (based on the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident) Michael has become infatuated with terrorism, even going so far as to teach a class on the subject at George Washington University. So you can see where he’s coming from.
The shocking clues continue to pile up, causing Michael and us to realize that terrorism is not just a vague, foreign threat. Bobby Bukowski’s masterful cinematography is partly why this film so successfully makes us think at the same time as it keeps our greasy, popcorn-covered hands clenched in anticipation. The extreme close-ups of Jeff Bridges’ striking cerulean blue eyes at pivotal points in the plot reflect the need to look deeper into the world around us to see the truth. Such detailed, emotional shots are the norm in this film. Camera shake and 180 degree shots are used effectively throughout to mirror characters’ confusion or fear. With the exception of a ridiculous party scene—where the eerie diagonal shots and close-ups of sketchy characters bathed in harsh, colored lights (not to mention the clichéd “Get Down Tonight” as absurd background music) seem to recreate a 70’s acid trip rather than a terrifying encounter with kidnappers—each shot is purposeful and well-planned.
And for an edge-of-your-seat Hollywood thriller, Arlington Road also has a high-caliber (and not just high-profile) cast that doesn’t disappoint in the acting department. Tim Robbins brings such depth to the character of Oliver that you can’t help hoping he’ll wind up the good guy despite all his sinister tendencies. The sincerity and innocence Robbins brings to the line, “Jeez, I didn’t know you taught a course on terrorism, Michael; that’s a pretty frightening subject,” almost convinces you that he could never have been an accomplice to a federal building bombing in St. Louis (an event screenwriter Ehren Krueger based on the 1996 Oklahoma City attack). As for Joan Cusack, whom we usually see in backup comedic roles behind older brother John, she portrays the Stepford Wife-like Cheryl deftly. The shocking, red smile that rarely leaves her putty white face—except when she’s glaring down Michael during a political discussion with a look that makes your skin crawl—makes the character creepy enough for me. Add in the aptly applied midwestern accent and Cheryl is practically the robotic serial killer I suspect every tame housewife of being.
Then there’s the character of Leah (Laura Poe), Michael’s late-wife, whom we see in a sequence of flashbacks that revolves around her death. The character is simply too sympathetic and sappy to be an FBI agent who caused a major blunder that led to the loss of many lives. In the scene where FBI agents chase after a young boy and instigate the standoff, Leah melodramatically calls out, her face wrenched with worry, “The kid doesn’t know why we’re here!” Because, naturally, her character is the only one able to recognize that the FBI is making a mistake in chasing the kid down with automatic rifles cocked in their arms.
Perhaps we’re meant to see Leah through Michael’s warped vision, and that’s why she is so sympathetic (for the film’s sake, let’s just hope so). In any case, the same cannot be said for Cheryl, whose gosh-golly amiability we are clearly meant to second-guess. Yet that we, along with Michael, could suspect the buoyant Cheryl (“Our house is your house!”) of anything abnormal is an aspect of life the movie wants us to investigate deeper. I’m sure we can all remember kindergarten ingraining the motto “Don’t stick your nose in other people’s business” in our tiny heads. And because of that motto, haven’t we felt a sharp pang of guilt each time we snooped on a friend or a neighbor? In the scenes where Michael is investigating Oliver’s past, we sense Michael’s guilt as the scenery around him becomes increasingly dark. When he first uses the phone to inquire about Oliver, his office is dimly lit. In the last incident where he searches by Internet, the entire movie screen is black, save Michael’s illuminated face, as if he’s hiding this dark, dirty little secret—that he is nosing into his neighbor’s business—from the rest of the world. The ironic thing is, this “dirty little secret” is the only way Michael has to discover whether or not he is living next door to terrorists.
This complicated theme is just one way the film strikes fear into us while also making us ponder such things as how minding our own business estranges us from our own neighbors and blinds us to the reality that surrounds us. A brilliantly crafted and acted thriller, Arlington Road causes us to forget about our popcorn and Jujubes and instead huddle over the edge of our seat in utter suspense. Yet unlike most high-budget Hollywood thrillers, the film does this while also—gasp!—making us think.